Toes Under the Lawnmower?

“I feel like such a temporary person in everybody’s life,” posted a friend this morning. “Not everybody”, someone else replied, “Just someone.”

Dear Sweet Girl,

I’m sorry to learn that you’re disappointed in your relationships today. I want you to hang on. Use what you learned with this one to do it differently the next time. There will be a next time and if you apply what you learned, it will be better. Trust me.

I’ve been there – a lot – and have left others there too. But now, with sixty-four years of experience under this belt, I’ve learned a few things. First, some relationships are for a short time, some are forever. You can learn to tell them apart if you want to. Second, it’s not just friends and lovers who leave or that you will leave. It’s also family and it’s mentors, anyone you respect and want to please. And finally, losing people can feel like getting your toe whacked off by a lawnmower: it hurts like hell and you can’t walk right afterwards.

Over the years I’ve learned to protect my toes. I try to recognize people by the degree of reciprocity they extend toward me. Reciprocity is “bounce-back”. It’s kinda like a tennis match. You hit a tennis ball against the wall and it bounces back, right? That’s reciprocity. If the ball doesn’t bounce back – if we have to chase it – it’s not much fun anymore. In the early days of a relationship, reciprocity is common. It’s called the honeymoon period for a reason. It’s wonderful but it ends and you have to go back to real life.

Your relationships may have started out solid – mine did too, or so I thought – but relationships change with time. Hang on to a piece of yourself just in case. Just because you started as soulmates doesn’t mean you’ll end that way. It’s wise not to jump into things too quickly. Before you know for sure. If neither is willing to evolve in the same direction, that’s a problem. Hanging on when one person is signaling they want to let go not only hurts the relationship, it damages everything in its wake. A loss of respect for each other is a precursor to heartache. Learn to be wise about connecting and learn to let go before it’s too late.

I haven’t been particularly wise, not in relationships, with family, or with mentors. When I was a freshman I dated a junior who I thought hung the moon. He was all about me until the next girl caught his eye. He stopped reciprocating my affections. Throughout the year I think he dated every freshman girl in my class. I thought I would die. I didn’t though I repeated the cycle a few more times before I got it.

I grew up in a family with some members that I thought would always be close, but isn’t. The only thing we had in common was growing up together. For a long time I hung on hoping to make the relationship what I wanted but we wanted different things. They didn’t reciprocate. To be fair, in some cases I stopped too. When I was referred to as a “distant relative” I finally I understood that I was and let go.

A former mentor largely ignored me until one day he desperately needed my help to get out of a sticky situation. It was the first time I recognized my pattern. No, I told him, I can’t come. Our relationship is not reciprocal. None of these were. But I kept hoping they would be past the point of logic.

A person who doesn’t reciprocate no longer cares if we play ball. He’s (or she’s) unengaged in order to reduce our expectations. Settle for less, or get nothing at all, they all said to me. So I have learned to take nothing at all. My reciprocity is now only in evidence if kindness is returned in like measure. If I invest time in someone who won’t invest time in or effort on me, I’ve just shoved my toes under a lawnmower. Not smart.

All that said, I realize I’ve strayed from your original complaint: that you feel like such a temporary person in everybody’s life. You’re not. There are a lot of people who are reciprocating into your life. Look toward them.

We get the respect we require. Some of us don’t get a fairy tale, happy future exactly like we think we deserve but if we wait, we’ll get something better – wisdom and grace to make it through this messy life. Part of what I experienced was to keep me from settling for less than the best. I would have settled (and did settle) once upon a time. I’m still working out the impacts of that, but won’t make it again.

I’ve learned to be thankful in loss, because their absence means there’s something better out there for me. I believe that for you too, dear Sweet Girl. I truly do. And best of all, I’m thankful that I learned about shoving my toes under that lawnmower. These days I give it a wide berth. I pray you’ll do the same.

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